But now, we live in a world of low-quality, single-use furniture, with almost 10 million tons ending up in North American landfills each year.
“People throw things away too often,” explains Jason Horvath, the founder of Uhuru, a Brooklyn-based furniture design firm.
Since its inception, Uhuru has become a leader in sustainable design practices, and a trailblazer in the commercial furniture space, having outfitted offices for brands like Nike, Shake Shack, and Vice.
And now, it wants to fix your relationship with furniture at home.
In 2004, Horvath graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and opened up a communal workshop with four others in Brooklyn. And it was there that Uhuru was conceived.
“I had 500 bucks in my bank account,” recalls Horvath on starting out post-college. “We were 22 years old, totally broke, just scraping by, and having a great time in New York.”
In its early years, Uhuru crafted high-end custom furniture using any tools and materials its team could get hold of. “We took our design education and our design aesthetic and we applied it to these things that we were finding on the street and even scrap that we found in our own shops,” Horvath explains.
To describe its unique style, process, and aesthetic, the team coined the term New American design, as Hovarth explains, “it was a reaction against mass-made furniture.”
Just as New American cuisine was a melting pot of traditional American cooking techniques and innovative seasonings, sauces, and styles, New American furniture design juxtaposed the classical furniture design Horvath had learned at design school with the contemporary Brooklyn aesthetic and the maker mentality of crafting pieces with the tools and materials you had at hand.
“We borrowed tools from my dad's friend, we'd walk outside and be like, ‘construction beam, pile of rusty fence parts, what can we make out of this stuff?’,” Hovarth recalls.
“We borrowed tools from my dad's friend, we'd walk outside and be like, ‘construction beam, pile of rusty fence parts, what can we make out of this stuff?’”
For the first couple of years, Uhuru exclusively created custom pieces. Then in 2006, its first collection was launched at a trade fair called Brooklyn Designs. The collection was an instant hit. “All of a sudden people were not just coming to us to do their custom dining table but now to buy our art and our design,” says Horvath.
After a decade of releasing new collections, Uhuru expanded into commercial design, outfitting offices for global brands and supplying furniture to some of the world’s best-known hotel chains like Ace Hotels and Marriott.
Then at the start of 2019, Uhuru set its sights on changing our relationship with furniture at home — aiming to inspire people to build lasting relationships with their furniture, and move away from low-quality, single-use pieces.
And the key to achieving this vision, Horvath believes, is crafting furniture that has a story to tell.
In the early days of Uhuru, the team created pieces from whatever unique materials they could acquire — anything from Kentucky bourbon barrels that Horvath recalls driving 24-hours in a “rickety ass pickup truck” to collect to New York Fire Department firetruck springs. And this experience helped Horvath to learn an important lesson about what makes people feel a connection furniture.
“People love stories,” he says. And in a nutshell, that’s Uhuru’s secret weapon, every single piece — even if it’s factory-made — has a story. “It can be a story of a material. It can be a story of the maker who's actually touching the piece. It can be an inspiration that the piece is based around,” adds Horvath.
“It can be a story of a material. It can be a story of the maker who's actually touching the piece. It can be an inspiration that the piece is based around."
For instance, Uhuru’s Frame Collection is a basics collection featuring desks, benches, and chairs, and it’s designed to be versatile, “like a plain white t-shirt,” Horvath shares. “They're pieces of furniture you can put anywhere. I can't tell you a deep story of this one individual table, but the collection as a whole has a narrative to it, which is that this fits in any environment," he explains.
In everything Uhuru does there’s also a deep-rooted passion for sustainability and Horvath sees storytelling as a key aspect of the fight against fast furniture. “Our biggest tenet of sustainability is to make stuff people don't ever want to throw away,” he says. “Stories create a distinct difference in how you think about something.”
“Our biggest tenet of sustainability is to make stuff people don't ever want to throw away."
If you're going sell an old piece of furniture for $30 on eBay or put it on the curb, you probably don’t have a deep connection with that piece. “But if you're going to give that to your best friend, you're going to tell them a story about that desk. You're going to tell them where it came from,” explains Horvath.
In October 2020, Uhuru closed a funding round of $6.9 million in private capital to support the expansion of its fast-growing direct-to-consumer business. And Hovarth says the strategy behind this fundraise was to put together a family of brands.
The first new brand to launch under the Uhuru umbrella will be Propr, a furniture brand focused on the work from home market. “We are going to see a shift of people working maybe two to three days a week from their living space," he explains, and this means our relationship with home will also have to adapt. “You need a dedicated place to work”.
With Propr, Uhuru is looking to develop accessible office furniture pieces that sit at the apex of work and life. “It’s home office furniture that people can live around comfortably,” says Horvath.
Despite its vast growth, and the many different forms Uhuru has taken since 2004, one thing has remained constant— its mission. And after speaking to Horvath, that’s something that I feel won’t ever change.
“Our mission is to keep building things that will last and be passed down for generations,” he says.